Construction of Brewster tourist attraction underway
Construction is underway on Brewster Travel Canada’s controversial commercial tourist attraction on the Icefields Parkway – and conservationists are raising concerns for mountain goats there.
Conservationists, who point to the fact there’s been no long-term research on goats in that area to accurately determine how goats may or may not be affected by the multi-million dollar development of the glass-floored observation deck overlooking the Sunwapta Valley, say goats and their kids had been spotted on the cliffs where the development is happening.
Parks Canada officials say they expect there will be affects on goats during busier construction periods and goats may change how they use the area, but there are mitigations in place to deal with environmental concerns.
They say a monitoring program during construction and operation of the Glacier Discovery Walk will assess and adapt all activities at the site to make sure that impacts on wildlife, like goats, are minimized.
“The dates for construction were chosen to take us away from the post kidding and lambing period and the higher levels of goat use,” said Shawn Cardiff, Jasper’s manager of land use planning and policy.
“Trained environmental monitors are on site and blasting and excavation will be halted if we believe there is any risk to wildlife like mountain goats and bighorn sheep.”
Parks Canada issued the company a permit to access the site July 4, then issued a building permit for excavation, foundation and girders on July 19 with blasting allowed to begin the week of July 23.
Bighorn sheep and mountain goats frequent the pullout and the area around Sunwapta Canyon Viewpoint where the Glacier Discovery Walk is being built, and the steep cliffs act as important terrain for goats to escape predators.
Research elsewhere has shown that disturbance in mountain goat habitat is a major concern for the conservation of this species, even if it does not lead directly to habitat loss.
In 2011, a small field study and a remote camera study were done as part of the environmental assessment to monitor the site and surrounding area to get information on goats, including documenting daily and seasonal use.
As part of an environmental assessment for the project, Dr. Steeve Côte, a professor at Quebec’s University of Laval and a recognized mountain goat expert, was also interviewed.
Côte emphasized that the effects of the Glacier Discovery Walk development on goat populations will be difficult to predict, particularly given there is little to no long-term information on trends.
He suggested that although young goat kids were observed on monitoring cameras, kidding sites are unlikely within the immediate vicinity of Sunwapta Canyon Viewpoint.
Côte said what appears to be minimal responses by goats to people does not mean that the goats are habituated. Instead, they may tolerate people to gain access to high-quality resources.
He indicated he was not surprised that there was no correlation between the amount of use of the Sunwapta Viewpoint by people, and goat use of the cliffs below.
Côte said mountain goats are often willing to take risks in exchange for high value resources, such as mineral licks. This may drive the goats to use the Sunwapta Viewpoint despite human activity.
“But the key point is that effects are difficult to predict because even though goats are using the lick, it does not mean that they are not stressed,” Côte told the Outlook last week.
“If the resource is important for them, they may still use it. Another reason why it is difficult is because we have (nearly) no information about what goats and sheep were doing before construction.”
Conservationists who argue the development is inappropriate for a national park are concerned for the well-being of mountain goats, particularly given there are no long-term wildlife studies on population estimates or trends.
Mike McIvor, president of the Bow Valley Naturalists, said Parks Canada made the decision to approve the development in full knowledge of the fact that virtually nothing is known about the goat population that uses that area.
“I think, for me, the most important statement was from Steeve Côte, the foremost expert on mountain goats, stating it would be difficult to predict the effects,” McIvor said.
“Nevertheless, the decision was made that we don’t know what the effects will be, but let’s do it anyway. We’ll roll the dice and if anything loses, you can be sure it will be the goats.”
Brewster did not get back to the Outlook by press time, but the Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment (AMPPE) says Brewster has been waiting patiently to begin construction, not wanting to impact goats in the kidding season.
“It’s been a long and bumpy road for this project, but Brewster has proceeded very carefully to make sure they’re following the environmental assessment to the letter,” said AMPPE executive director Monica Andreeff.
“Brewster has made a commitment to developing a world-class attraction that embraces environmental stewardship and award-winning architecture.”
Parks Canada officials say the development will likely change how mountain goats and bighorn sheep use the area, but say it is not anticipated to cause abandonment of the site nor affect the viability of the local herds.
Cardiff said there are several mitigations in place aimed at protecting mountain goats and bighorn sheep, including a ruling that construction can only take place in a single season and was banned during kidding and lambing season.
As well, he said, Brewster’s hours of operation once open will be adjusted during the lambing and kidding season and, after mid-July, to avoid morning and evening periods important to wildlife.
In addition, Cardiff said a monitoring program will be designed and implemented, likely in conjunction with a university science program, to ensure impacts on wildlife are minimized and populations remain secure.
“The monitoring program will look at patterns of site use by goats, wildlife mortality, habituation and regional habitat security,” he said.
Should the monitoring program show the development is hurting the mountain goat population, Cardiff said Parks Canada will work with Brewster to further mitigation measures.
These could include further modifying operating hours to accommodate seasonal timing sensitivities. Best practices for viewing could be also refined to reduce sensory disturbance at the site.
“If the mitigation programs are not working there would be a requirement to develop further mitigation measures,” he said.
Cardiff said the desired end results for mountain goats must show goats continue to use the area in the same manner they have in the past, and mortality rates must be maintained or reduced.
“What that means is we don’t want to see mortality increased and, better yet, they would be reduced,” he said.
Cardiff said mountain goats cannot become more habituated to human activity during or after a development is built, and the goat population must remain secure. “That means it has to persist in the long-run,” he said.
Exactly how that will be managed and measured – especially given there has been no long-term study on the Tangle Ridge goats to date – is not yet known and remains a work in progress.
“We know there’s going to be affects on mountain goats and bighorn sheep, and there’s likely to be displacement during some of the busier construction periods,” Cardiff said.
“But our expectation is, in the long-term, we are managing for desired end results, and that those can be achieved and we will measure to see how we’re doing.”
There have been five mountain goat deaths along the Icefields Parkway from the Beauty Flats to the south park boundary between 1980 and 2000; three of these have been between Sunwapta Canyon Viewpoint and Tangle Falls. There have been no reported goat deaths along this stretch of highway in the past decade.
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